Driven by a lack of meaningful diversity and an advertising industry in disarray, Rebecca Wadey and Zoe Walker Ahwa have launched Ensemble, a new online fashion, beauty and lifestyle website aimed at upending the traditional high-gloss magazine model.
It wasn’t our intention to launch during a level three lockdown in Tāmaki Makaurau. Working in an industry that’s notoriously risk-averse, we knew what we were planning was wild. But not that wild.
We’d been working on Ensemble since lockdown number one. Zoe had lost her job as editor-in-chief of Fashion Quarterly and Simply You magazines, and I had taken six months off the hamster wheel to live in the Coromandel. It became increasingly obvious to both of us that if we ever wanted to work again (or at least do meaningful work) we’d need to make it happen for ourselves.
For a while, I vaguely toyed with buying Fashion Quarterly, but Zoe wasn’t interested in resurrecting that dinosaur. And it was obvious that even if we got it for a song, the costs involved in running it would be prohibitive. The more we examined the model of traditional fashion and lifestyle media and its years’ long reliance on brand advertising, the more turned off by it we became. It was exciting to look at everything we knew, dismantle it and put it back together on our own terms.
One example: the beauty editorial. What an antiquated notion! One homogenised voice (usually young and white) telling everyone how products work. We see this as a throwback to the golden years of publishing where the power suits that sat upstairs dictated “editorial” to suit the needs of their top advertisers. The whole model is so disrespectful to the reader no wonder they’re turning away in droves. Beauty influencers have grown as a response, but they’re not the answer that satisfies us.
Another example: the lack of diverse faces, bodies and voices. Fashion has long been a club of the white elite. There are few Māori and Pasifika journalists, stylists and photographers working within the industry and for good reason – ignored for so long, why would you bother fighting for it? Around the world, traditional roles have been filled by children of privilege, working for very little pay and spending what they do earn on “perks of the job” such as discounted designer clothing.
We remained convinced there was an audience for intelligent, female-led conversations that were truly inclusive. We wanted to be opinionated, stick up for things we believed in and create space for everyone in an industry that had always been very exclusionary.
But we knew it was a challenging time to embark on such a mission. With no outside investment and the advertising industry in disarray, we needed to think differently. The model was broken, so we decided to go our own way.
We didn’t want to crowdfund as it felt important to us to be commercially viable. We know what we have is of value, and that creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism comes at a price. The question became how we could monetise that until the industry course-corrected.
Unlike other successful membership models like that of our friends at The Spinoff, we didn’t have time to earn our stripes. Covid meant budgets were slashed and few brands were willing to take a with a new venture, so our membership programme needed to work immediately; there wasn’t time to rely purely on respect earned from journalistic integrity.
We reached out to a few key fashion designers we could speak frankly with and floated a membership program by them. The response was overwhelmingly positive. They got it instantly.
And from there Ensemble was born.
Thirteen of the country’s leading fashion brands have pledged support via a roster of discounted shopping nights, VIP access and other fun perks. If you’re a keen shopper and a supporter of shopping local, you’ll make your investment back and then some.
We also have a calendar of events and parties of our own to bring to the table, lockdown restrictions dependent. Think movie screenings, in-conversations, tree plantings, book clubs and more (maybe a Zoom craft club? We’re open to ideas).
Each of our 13 designers has promised at least one discount shopping night, with a minimum discount of 10% across a 12 month period, as well as an experiential brand VIP event.
We are very focused on this program being of value to our members. We don’t expect charity, although we’ll take it if you’re willing! There’s an option to make a donation without committing to full membership, all of which will go towards supporting fashion and lifestyle media with integrity and paying the creatives and diverse voices we’ll be working with, from writers and photographers to models and stylists.
But it’s also important that Ensemble is free to all. We believe the stories we tell are for everyone and fashion has been too exclusionary for too long.